Harvesting change: a lasting future

Harvesting change: a lasting future

Salina, Kansas – Sometimes, developing food for the future can be like playing the lottery.

The Land Institute is playing the long game to develop perennial grain crops that reduce farmer inputs and enhance soil health.

At the institute, greenhouse specialists will place an annual plant next to a perennial and then study all the combinations resulting from cross-pollination. The goal is to produce high-yielding cereal crops that do not have to be planted every year.

“You’re never really sure which of these traits you’re going to get at any given time,” explained Lydia Nicholson, an instructional design technician at the Earth Institute. “But there’s a chance you could hit the jackpot and quickly find a product that has everything you need.”

In essence, this is a simplification of the scientific work being done at the Earth Institute. It also demonstrates the remarkable progress made by the non-profit organization, which began in 1976.

Kernza, the Earth Institute’s most popular perennial grain company, has found a market for producing beer, flour, and grains. It is now grown on more than 2,000 acres of farmland in the United States. Kerenza provides evidence of the possibility of permaculture, a slow-moving process in nature.


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Why perennials?

Most food crops are annual plants. Every year, farmers till the soil, sow seeds and spread fertilizers and herbicides to produce the next crop.

It’s essentially an extractive process that has led to an estimated 24-46% loss of topsoil in the Corn Belt, according to a University of Massachusetts study.

Perennials, on the other hand, come back every year and keep most of the soil and its nutrients in place.

The Land Institute believes that by replacing annual crops (primarily grain crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat) with perennial versions, producers can feed the world and nurture the lands they farm.

“Soil is not a renewable resource,” Nicholson said. “We need to protect the soil we have because it takes a lot of time to build it.”

Proponents argue that perennial crops can play a crucial role in developing a virtuous cycle in agriculture.

In addition to grain production, perennial crops can also provide fodder for livestock. Grazing (and the manure associated with it) helps fertilize the soil naturally, Nicholson said.

Furthermore, the deep root systems of perennial plants absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and return it to the soil. It is worth noting that Kerenza is used in Minnesota to remove harmful nitrates from drinking water.

Kernza is the Land Institute’s most popular perennial. In the greenhouse in the cold season, Kerenza plants display their delicate flowers. (Cami Kunz | Flat Earth)

The Land Institute is working on the reconstruction of some traditional grains, including wheat, sorghum, and several varieties of lentils. It is also trying to cultivate silphium, a wild perennial plant, for use as an oilseed.

Many of these crops still have years to go before they become successful as crops, although they have shown promising results in the greenhouse environment.

The Land Institute wants to be sure that a crop will do well in the wild before asking a farmer to plant it. This means making sure they can be started from seed outdoors, grow well under a variety of conditions, and can be harvested using conventional equipment.

“Instead of thinking about it as: ‘We have a solution and everyone has to change,’ we think: ‘What wisdom do people already know and what’s stopping them from relying on that?'” Nicholson explained.

To that end, Nicholson said much of the work at the Land Institute begins with listening to farmers and consumers and looking at ancient practices. These conversations inform the work being done at the institute to ensure that perennial grains are something that can be used in existing systems, rather than repaired.

“It’s about the long-term vision,” Nicholson said. “Looking at the deep history and far into the future…opening up to many perspectives and making sure that we are inviting the voices of farmers, indigenous communities and marginalized populations who often do care work and food work and making sure that we are incorporating all of those voices.

Healthy food leads to healthy communities

Traditional farming systems have made it possible to increase food production and provide affordable food by maximizing production.

“But there are enormous hidden costs in expanding these products and falling food prices,” said Matt Sanderson, a professor at Kansas State University.

Sanderson teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels on society, sustainability, environment, global change, agriculture, and food.

“People are looking for alternatives,” Sanderson said. “Farmers because of what they see (happening) on ​​the landscape relate to biodiversity, soil, water, but also to their rural communities as they unload.”

Croplands represent a large share of the land of the United States


Sanderson researched the impact of regenerative farming practices on farmers’ well-being.

“Most of the research done on farmers and principles of regenerative agriculture is around soil health…and the evidence is becoming very clear that…these practices and principles, when enacted, build soil health.”

Sanderson’s research asked whether these practices are also beneficial to the farmer.

They found that in the long run it enhances farmers’ well-being. But there is a period when it is difficult for farmers to switch from conventional practices (tillage, pesticides, fertilizers) to regenerative practices (such as no-till and cover crop systems) and some will decline.

To support people through a difficult transition period, it is essential to have a support community.

Essentially, changes as big as implementing a perennial grain crop cannot be made in a vacuum, and a more localized and scaled-down version of farming could be the right kind of support.

“Where agriculture once again becomes producers and consumers seeing each other, less separate and less disconnected,” Sanderson said. “When people reconnect and see each other again — it seems so simple — you get different relationships… you have support networks.”

From here, conversations about sustainable practices become possible.

“Agriculture is at the bottom of what has become a series of crises from climate to soil,” Sanderson said. “And since this is part of the problem, it is also part of a set of potential solutions.”

Sanderson believes the Earth Institute’s sustainability work could be one solution.

“(The benefits of perennial crops) are very vitally linked — even if you can’t see them directly — to revitalizing the health of these local communities,” Sanderson said.

“Food is the relationship with people and place,” he said. “The health of the soil is directly linked to the health of the people…and you’re eating in a community, even if it looks like a group of people.”

Kami Kunz covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in association with Report for America. The work of our Report for America staff is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation. Julie Fregate, a master’s student at the University of Missouri and a Flatland contributor, helped with the visualizations.

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